Thats the limit

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					 Bearings: Environmental limits special

That’s the limit
 Roger Higman, Environmental Limits Co-ordinator,
 reminds us that the lives of human beings depend on
 the natural world and the conditions it creates, not on
 economic theories

Sixteen miles north of Tuscon,           the occupants to breathe. Meanwhile,     nature brings us we need effective
Arizona, between the Catalina and        nitrous oxide levels got high enough     rules to control its use. Too often
Tortolina Mountains, lies a massive      to impair the brain. Nineteen of the     trade negotiators see the rules set up
glass pyramid with a big story to tell   25 vertebrate species and all the        to protect nature’s bounty as barriers
for all humankind.                       pollinators in the Biosphere died out.   to free trade.
                                         The inhabitants suffered plagues of
Biosphere 2 was the brainchild of                                                 Ironically, rural people in poor
                                         cockroaches and were forced to spend
Texan millionaire, Ed Bass. The idea                                              countries who are supposed to benefit
                                         hours cutting back runaway vines.
was to create a self-sustaining                                                   from trade liberalisation often suffer
environment that could meet all the      A scientific review of Biosphere 2 by    the most from its effects. More than
needs of eight Biospherans for two       J E Cohen and D Tilman in 1996           one billion people depend directly on
years – at a cost of $200 million. The   concluded that: “there is no             forests for at least some of their needs
designers built a huge greenhouse        demonstrated alternative to              – food, fuel, forage, materials or
containing living areas, farming land,   maintaining the viability of Earth.      medicines. Fish, mainly wild-caught,
a mini tropical rainforest, a bit of     No one yet knows how to engineer         is the principal source of protein for
desert and an ocean with coral reef.     systems that provide humans with the     20 per cent of the population of Asia
Leakage from the atmosphere to the       life-supporting services that natural    and Africa. If trade liberalisation
world outside was as low as 10 per       ecosystems produce for free.             leads to deforestation and over-
cent a year.                             Dismembering major biomes into           fishing, the poor will hurt first.
                                         small pieces, a consequence of
                                                                                  We will all suffer eventually. If trade
                                         widespread human activities, must be
                                                                                  liberalisation impedes action to stop

 “   Despite its
 mysteries and
 hazards, Earth
                                         regarded with caution. Despite its
                                         mysteries and hazards, Earth remains
                                         the only known home that can
                                         support life.”
                                                                                  climate change, we will all suffer very
                                                                                  soon. But if we respect nature’s limits,
                                                                                  we can continue to enjoy its bounty
                                                                                  for millions of years.
 remains the only                        Biopshere 2 clearly demonstrates our
                                                                                  Biosphere 2 is currently up for sale.
 known home that                         dependence on the natural world –
                                                                                  Our world is not.
 can support life”                       and the processes by which it
                                         continually recreates conditions that
                                         are favourable to life. This
However, the experiment went             dependence, which is self-evident to       Environmental limits
horribly wrong. The farming land was     many, is unfortunately not evident to
                                                                                    This is a key theme in Friends
furnished with an extremely rich soil.   trade negotiators and big business
                                                                                    of the Earth’s five-year strategic
Rice yields were as good as the          lobbyists. Their thinking is dominated
                                                                                    plan. It focuses on humanity’s
world’s best, but soil microbes in the   by economic theories that take no          dependence on nature and the
humus had a field day. They              account of nature.                         need to respect nature’s limits –
multiplied, taking oxygen from the                                                  globally and nationally – in terms
                                         This creates conflicts as Eve Mitchell
atmosphere and converting it to                                                     of climate, biodiversity and
                                         demonstrates on pages 16–17. Trade
carbon dioxide. Oxygen                                                              resource use.
                                         dogma says that human well-being is
concentrations fell to levels normally
                                         maximised if trade is free. Yet if we
found at 17,500 feet and more had to
                                         are to safeguard the benefits that
be pumped in from outside to allow

ISSUE 54 AUGUST/SEPTEMBER 2005                                                                                               3

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